Mental health at work: how to make a difference

Employers are increasingly concerned about the impact mental health issues are having at work. Mental health is the most common cause of days off sick in the UK after minor illnesses. With depression now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation, and with young people – particularly young women – increasingly reporting anxiety and other symptoms of mental illness, it’s a problem that is only likely to get worse.  And just at a time when increasing automation is likely to mean more worklessness on the one hand and more focus on the kind of creative skills and resilience to change that don’t tend to flourish in an atmosphere of anxiety and stress.

According to a recent Business in the Community survey, 62% of employees who suffered from poor mental health said work was a contributing factor – whether because of long hours, job insecurity or other factors. However, while 60% of senior managers and board members think their organisation supports people with mental health issues only 11% of employees said they had discussed a mental health problem with their line manager. Many were silenced by the stigma surrounding mental health problems, said BiTC, and line managers – often under stress themselves  – felt they were not trained to deal with the issues.

So what can employers – and employees – do about it? It is certainly increasingly on the radar of employers with a raft of wellbeing initiatives being launched in recent years, including mental health fora. M&G, for instance, held its first Mind Matters colleague network event in January to a packed audience.

Others are looking at direct action on a day to day basis. WH Smith has recently launched a mental health initiative which aims to train staff at Head Office and in its stores to be mental health first aiders.

Work life balance

Flexible working has to some extent been absorbed into the wellbeing agenda, but, as with all things, it depends how it is done. Flexible working which means flexing around your employer’s every need is probably not the best way of combatting stress. Studies show that the most stressed people are those who lack any sense of control over their work. To work effectively flexible working has to be a balance between employee and employer needs – a kind of ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ approach.

Another issue which relates to flexible working but which is really more about how we handle technology is the ‘always on’ work culture. The French government’s approach has been to introduce ‘a right to disconnect’ [ie not send or answer emails] for employees of companies with more than 50 workers. While this has its disadvantages – it means those who flex around the school run and make up their hours later, for instance, could have less control over how they work, meaning greater stress – it at least puts the issue on the agenda.

At the heart of that issue is working hours [regular overworking], line management and work intensity. Talking Talent’s recent survey on burnout shows the dangers of overwork. The survey showed more than half of all professionals and two thirds of working parents feel worn out by their work, with senior managers most likely to say this.

Employers are addressing some of these issues, such as the tendency of remote workers to work longer hours [particularly those for whom homeworking makes the whole work and family thing function better]. BT, which was one of the first companies to bring in remote working, advised managers to spot the signs of overwork. Others are looking at job design to think through more carefully how to avoid the dangers of, for instance, allowing people to go part time, but not reducing any of their workload.

Line management must be a key area to explore, assuming managers themselves are not too stressed themselves to be able to spot symptoms of burnout and mental exhaustion among their staff. Those symptoms include:

  • Chronic fatigue, including a lack of energy and feeling tired most days
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention
  • Physical symptoms of stress such as frequent headaches
  • Increased susceptibility to illness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

What about employees, though? Is there anything that they can do to reduce the possibility of burnout? These are some suggestions that can help:

  • Delegate whatever you can at home and at work – it can encourage those to whom you delegate, whether more junior colleagues or children, to take more responsibility and shows that you trust them
  • Define the core aspects of your job and how this can increase impact ie make a business case for doing less, but more effectively
  • Manage expectations eg put an alert on your emails that you are not available at certain times if you work part time
  • Role model work life balance if you are a senior manager because what you do influences those you manage [as with children, people copy what you do more than what you say]
  • Factor in regular exercise or meditation where you completely switch off from thoughts of work
  • Have regular periods of disconnection, including from social media, eg, have weekly movie nights, and commit to them unless there is a total emergency.

 

 





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